National Museum of Catholic Art and Library - Founder's Message - Spring 2008


For more than two hundred years religious orders of women in the United States have unselfishly contributed to our schools, hospitals, orphanages and numerous other apostolates. Catholic women have entered religious life, taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and entered into a spiritual communion with God demonstrating their selfless commitment in everything they do. At the beginning of the 20th century, close to 50,000 women had vowed to devote their lives to the church. By 1934 statistics show that there was one sister for every one thousand Catholics. By the 1960s, religious life had reached its peak with more than 200,000 sisters belong to contemplative orders or to ministries in educational, health and social services.

The concept of people living together in religious communities for prayer and meditation began in the third century when holy men, followers of Jesus Christ, lived apart from their brethren in an effort to deepen their spirituality. Referred to as "hermits," they lived in the Egyptian desert and emulated Jesus who often retreated to the desert for prayer. By the fourth century the term "monk" (from the Greek monachos, "to live alone") referred to these hermits who had banded together in communities. The monks founded monasteries and it is St. Basil (329-379) who is credited with formalizing this system with a "rule" or written statement of the community's spiritual purpose. The presence of female hermits, known as anchoresses, dates to the third century. Early monastic communities for women were usually attached to male monasteries for protection. These communities dating back 1600 years were the origins of sisterhood as we know it today.

European records show religious communities of women living together to pray and perform charitable works. St. Patrick founded such a community in 409AD and Bishop Caesar in Arles, France in 525AD. Religious communities for women also flourished in England, Spain and Italy. They usually followed either the Augustinian rule or theBenedictine rule. St. Benedict (480-546) founded the first permanent European monastery in Italy. His rules governing monasticism were considered to be wise and flexible and are still the primary rule of monasticism in the West. He adapted his rule for women at the suggestion of his twin sister, St. Scolastica who started the Second Order of St. Benedict, a term that denotes the female branch of a monastic order and whose members are called "nuns." It was mot until 1535 with the foundation of the Ursuline Order by St. Angela Merici, that communities of women religious dedicated themselves to the education of youth. The evolution of these communities in Europe continued through the Middle Ages and into the twenty-first century.

August 1727 is a historic date in the history of Sisterhood in America. A year earlier, Rev. Father Ignatius de Beaubois, head of the Jesuit settlement in Louisiana, traveled to the Ursuline convent in Rouen, France to secure volunteers for the settlement in Louisiana. In 1727 nine Ursuline sisters answered his plea and established a small community in New Orleans. Within a short time the sisters opened a boarding school, a day school, an orphanage and later a hospital.

In 1790 Rev. John Carroll, the Superior of the American clergy which at that time numbered thirty priests in a territory about the size of the Untied States, was appointed Bishop of Baltimore. His brother, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One of Rev. Carroll's first acts was to invite the Carmelites to his diocese to "pray for the American Missions." Of the small group that arrived, two were Americans who had left Maryland to join the Order in Belgium. On July 2, 1790 they arrived in New York and immediately set out for Maryland. The Discalced Carmelite Sisters, established at Fort Tobacco, Maryland were the first Catholic women's religious institution in the United States to be dedicated exclusively to prayer and meditation.

It is interesting to note that the first two religious congregations of women established in the United States represented two different forms of religious life; the active (Ursulines) and the contemplative (Carmelites). During the 18th century, missionaries from European countries traveled to religious communities in America who had appealed for help. Women arrived from Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany and assisted their American counterparts in operating schools and caring for the sick and disabled.

First Order of Black Sisters

On July 2, 1829 four black sisters made their first profession of vows and founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in the State of Maryland. Comprised mostly of educated black and mulatto Haitians who had been forced to immigrate because of political upheavals in their native land, these sisters were dedicated to the education and religious instruction of young black girls. They were the first congregation of black sisters and the ninth Order to be established in the United States.

Between 1727 and 1986 approximately three hundred and ninety Orders and Congregations of women religious were founded in the United States.

It is the intention of the National Museum of Catholic Art and Library to have a permanent exhibition focusing on the Sisterhood in America. Content of the exhibit will change from time to time and will cover the history and goals of the various orders and congregations of Sisterhoods.